Symon Hill explains why the Quaker belief in pacifism leads him to wear a white poppy.
To be Quaker is to choose a religion fundamentally at odds with the dominant values around us. For me, this is both exciting and challenging.
Quakers often enjoy publicity at this time of year, because – like other pacifists – we wear white poppies. Like most Quaker commitments, this is often misunderstood. White poppies are not about insulting the dead, but about honouring them by working for an end to war. It was this visible commitment to pacifism that initially attracted me to Quakers, but the attitude grows out of something deeper.
The starting-point of Quakerism is that the inward light of God is available to everyone. Of course, we are all limited by our own contexts, egos and the inclination to fall back on human rules. I admit that Quakers – myself included – often fall for a shoddy substitute of our religion that mistakes sympathy for love and lack of commitment for open-mindedness. But Quakerism at its best is shocking in its radicalism. If God’s light is present in all people, then to hurt another person is to hurt God, to refuse to learn from others is to set ourselves above God and to treat anyone as my inferior or superior is simply blasphemy.
Far from fluffy idealism, this involves a hard struggle to reorient our lives and to improve the world. I cannot believe in the universal availability of God without rejecting the lie that there is no alternative to war and poverty. This is no excuse for naivety: campaigning needs to be effective. I am proud of the role that Quakers have played in campaigns to abolish the transatlantic slave trade, reform prisons and secure human rights.
While I wear a white poppy as a memorial and a campaigning tool, it is also a sign of a belief in a different world. When protesting outside the London Arms Fair last year, I experienced a moment of powerful clarity when I was struck by the flimsiness and transience of the arms dealers’ power compared to the everlasting light of God, accessible in all our hearts if we will turn to it.
The power that was in Jesus is available to us now. His teachings of love, justice and nonviolence are a realistic approach to life, society and politics. As a Quaker, I cannot separate personal from political, sacred from secular, earthly from heavenly. The Kingdom of God is within us. It is up to us to live it.